Rutgers becomes bowl eligible for ninth time in 10 years on Senior Day
Gary Nova took a few minutes to soak in his surroundings, knowing it was a scene he was never going to see again.
He glanced up into the crowd and cherished the heartfelt ovations from the Piscataway faithful. He made his way through the sea of teammates and coaches he spent so many hours and days living a dream with, embracing them one by one.
One final time, the Rutgers football team’s senior quarterback stood at the forefront of the end zone, as the Scarlet Knights recited “On the Banks of the Old Raritan” to the student section.
And then Nova walked off the field he called home for 25 games in four seasons, never to play at High Point Solutions Stadium again.
“I’ve been through a lot of that field,” Nova said. “It’s kind of a weird feeling.”
What Rutgers accomplished Saturday also made it a rewarding one, as the Knights (6-4, 2-4) became bowl eligible for the ninth time in 10 seasons with a 45-23 victory against Indiana (3-7, 0-6).
Only this time, it meant something a little extra.
Few pundits gave Rutgers a fighting chance to reach six wins in its inaugural Big Ten season and with plenty of reasonable skepticism.
Rutgers’ non-conference tilt featured challenging road games at Washington State and Navy. The Knights then had to endure the most difficult Big Ten schedule based on last season’s win totals.
An ESPN.com July projection of the East Division pegged Rutgers to hover in the range of four to five wins total. The calculations projected every other team to seize at least six.
But with two games to spare, Rutgers showed that while it isn’t among the conference’s best, it had no intentions of being a pushover, either.
“Going into the season, we knew a lot of people were going to count us out,” said senior strong safety Lorenzo Waters. “People may not think that we’re a big-time football program, and we kind of put that on our back this offseason, working toward just being a great team and coming together and using that to propel us forward.”
But mired in a three-game losing streak coming in, securing bowl eligibility on this day did not look promising for a while.
After electing to defer the opening kickoff, Indiana recovered an onside kick to blindside Rutgers. Minutes later, the Hoosiers took an early 3-0 lead.
With a committee of four running backs looking to jumpstart Rutgers’ stagnant offense, the Knights produced merely 20 rushing yards in the first quarter. Sophomores Desmon Peoples and Justin Goodwin fumbled once each, with Goodwin’s lost in Rutgers territory.
Even after the Knights established a 10-6 lead midway through the second quarter, a decisive turn of events late in the half dangled the script of another Piscataway nightmare.
Rutgers faced fourth-and-one from Indiana’s 33-yard line with 36 seconds left, opting to go for it given the Hoosiers had only one timeout left. But freshman running Josh Hicks fell short of the first-down marker, and then the nation’s second-leading rusher took matters into his own hands.
On the very next snap, Indiana’s Tevin Coleman burst to the right sideline on a read-option play and ran 67 yards untouched into the end zone to give the Hoosiers a 13-10 lead.
Sophomore Janarion Grant returned the ensuing kickoff 71 yards, but with four seconds left, junior kicker Kyle Federico’s 47-yard field goal try missed off the crossbar.
“I was concerned,” said head coach Kyle Flood. “It was something that we had to address at halftime. ... One of the things I said to them was we can play a lot better than we played in the first half. And when you’re at halftime down three and you don’t feel like you’ve played very well, there’s a lot to feel good about as you come out for the second half.”
The Knights received the message loud and clear.
“It was very calm,” Nova said of the mood at halftime. “We had two fumbles —we lost one, a couple penalties. [We were] really just hurting ourselves, and … a lot of older guys were just saying, ‘We’ve been here before. We’ve just got to make the corrections.’ Coach Friedgen said, ‘Hey, we aren’t going to do anything different in the second half. It’s on you guys to execute.’”
Rutgers did just that, churning out 133 second-half rushing yards en route to 21 third-quarter points, seizing control of the game.
Nova, meanwhile, tacked on 128 passing yards over the final 30 minutes, hooking up in the end zone twice with junior wide receiver Leonte Carroo.
Carroo’s first score went for 34 yards after an out route catch along the sideline, showing the strength to hold on as cornerback Tim Bennett came over and tried to make the tackle. After Bennett slipped, Carroo darted to the end zone to extend Rutgers’ lead to 24-16.
“We do a drill like that every day in practice. It’s called ‘fight the sideline,’” Carroo said. “Gary put it there so I could make a play, and [Bennett] tried to pretty much tackle me, and I just fought the sideline and turned up the field.”
Indiana never clawed within eight points the rest of the way, as Rutgers withstood a season-high 307 yards from Coleman by limiting true freshman quarterback Zander Diamont to 15-of-31 passing, one touchdown and an interception.
The sixth victory could not have come at a more perfect time.
Rutgers finishes its regular season slate with No. 12 Michigan State and Maryland over the next two weeks. The Knights are unlikely to win either contest.
But it doesn’t matter now, since regardless of those results, the Knights will soon be able to say their first Big Ten season ultimately ended with a bowl game.
“You kind of get that monkey off your back a little bit. You hear about, ‘Ah, one more win and you’ll be bowl eligible. You think you can do it?’” said senior linebacker Kevin Snyder. “Yeah, I think we can do it.”
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